The International Literary Quarterly

February 2008

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Elements of Silence by Sara Maitland  

By way of introduction, Sara Maitland writes: In October, Granta will be publishing my new book - “A Book of Silence”, which is both a cultural history of silence and a narrative of my hunt for it, which has brought me to a little house on a high moor in South-West Scotland. So at the moment the whole text is lying on the cutting room floor - and these pieces are (in film terms) outtakes or (in musical terms) études. There does not seem to be a literary term for them - unless you like “prose poems” which I don't. Although many of the sentences from this sequence will appear in the book, they will not appear in this focused form.



We all live noisy lives. We choose to live noisy lives. We choose to banish silence from modernity. We exile it to the desert where the hermits went to seek it. We forget, we choose to forget, just how much silence there is. It is everywhere, necessary, secret and very powerful.

We forget, we choose to forget, how many of the major physical forces on which we depend are silent – gravity, electricity, light, tides, the turning of the seasons of the years, the unseen and unheard spinning of the whole cosmos.

The earth spins, it spins fast. It spins about its own axis at 465.11m per second (at the Equator); it orbits the sun at 107,218 km per hour. And the whole solar system spins through the spinning galaxy, at speeds we had better not dare to think about. The earth’s atmosphere spins with it, which is why we do not feel it spinning. It is whizzing through space so fast that when its outermost fringes collide with the dust that comets have shed in their passing, it does so at such speed that the friction sets them on fire, and they plunge into the atmosphere burning as they fall. We call them shooting stars. The earth spins and we spin with it, we are earth, we are clay, and the spinning shapes us, forms us – earthenware vessels on the potter’s wheel of the planet. It all happens silently

Growth is silent too. Cells divide, sap flows, bacteria multiply, energy runs thrilling through the earth, but without murmur of sound. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower” is a silent force. There are layers upon layers of this silence. Deep, deep underground the great sly tectonic plates shift: they push up mountain ranges, empty oceans, divide continents. Slowly, inexorably, they move, at about the speed that finger nails grow and as silently.

Miles above these dark shifting plates is soil. Soil, that very topmost skim coating, is called earth and the planet itself is called earth. It is all alive - pounding, heaving, thrusting. Microscopic fungi-spoors grow, lift pavements and fell houses. We hear the crack of the pavements and the crash of the buildings – such human artefacts are inevitably noisy, but the fungus itself grows silently. Perhaps we are wise to be terrified of silence – it is the terror that destroyeth in the noontime.

The winters are long on the high northern moors where I live. The days are short and the grass is grey-brown. It looks and feels dead. Each year I tell myself that this time I will observe the spring. I will remark and record it – the first pale green buttons that will be the hawthorn leaves; the first stiff shoots that will be the daffodils; the day of the week when the old wood in the valley looks green from above; the steady progress of aconite, snowdrop, primrose, until one morning where just a moment ago, just last time I looked, there was only leaf mulch and dead twigs, there is a haze of blue under the trees, vibrating where the sun finds it and almost misty in the shade - bluebells. And young beech leaves, pale gold-green and translucent with silent joy, from nowhere, from dead twigs, like magic, but not magical, just ordinary. I never do: the growth is always too subtle, too sudden and too silent. I am caught unawares once again.

In the summer though I do better. In the summer gardeners garden; we become active partners in all that silent growth. I do not make it happen, but I share in it happening. The earth works its way under my nails and into my fingerprints. In one’s own garden one must not be caught unawares – a single sprout of couch grass can grow five miles of root in a year, while lurking silently behind the delphiniums which are growing less extravagantly but just as determinedly in the opposite direction – up, up, upwards, and creating a magnificence of blue as though they were pulling the sky down to them. I have to pay attention.

Hermits garden. Improbably high in the Himalayas; in northern caves and on rocky islands, in middle-eastern deserts, you can see them, digging, scrabbling, weeding, watering, growing what they can – vegetables, a little grain and even flowers, unexpected beauty in the harsh silence of their lives. They are seeking silence as close to the earth, to the silent power of growth as possible, becoming, as they would say, grounded. Traditional Christian monastic life is built around two silent enclosures – the church and the cloister, which is also a garden - the secret, enclosed space, the hortus conclusus. The word Paradise comes from a Persian word for garden.

Sometimes I think that all this rooting about in mud and mythology is both a reversal of and rehearsal for the rich earthy silence of death. Whether or not there will be a heaven and whether or not it will be silent we cannot know, but we do know with absolute certainty, that, as dust or as ashes, we will rot down into the earth and peonies will grow out of what were once our navels, and roses out of our mouths and apple blossom out of our vaginas.

Silent earth.


We dream of flying. We dream of angels and dragons and butterflies – free and weightless, swimming in the invisible air.

We dream of wings. Yesterday afternoon I encountered my barn owl, if I can say “my” of a barn owl who happens to live in a ruin I happen to own. She is not mine any more than I am hers. Barn owls are pale, almost white sometimes; they do not make the famous twit-twoo sound their tawny cousins make and they live in the desolate high places. They are crepuscular as well as nocturnal. The wind tends to drop at sundown and the colour fades out of the rough grass and there is often a moment of almost perfect stillness. This is when I am most likely to see her, other than ghostly in the car headlights on dark nights. Yesterday, just then, I came round the corner of my house and there she was, perched on the drystone dyke. We regarded each other for a long moment. She has feathered legs, like snug plus fours; her heart-shaped face and wide black eyes really do look wise. Then she took off, immensely strong and smooth, with her deep owl wing beats and her ferocious talons hanging down beneath her; powerful, silent, free, across the buff hillside; then she floated behind the broken gable of the bier and was gone. I dream of flying like that

Last summer the martens came back all the way from Africa to their old nests. For generations they have nested in the broken roof and crooked walls. But, while they were away last winter, I had restored the roof, straightened the walls and destroyed their homes. All summer they came, swooping on the wind, graceful, skillful, skimming up and under the wide soffit, one by one; they each placed a tiny speck of mud onto the new wall, building a shelf for next year’s nests. Sometimes there were thirty of them busy at this work, and yet I never saw them so much as graze wings with each other. I dream of flying like that.

In the Peruvian jungle I have seen butterflies in clouds by the river, dancing like confetti in the hot still air. So many that their wings seemed to make a tiny breeze; which itself tossed them in the air. So light I heard no wing beat. Fragile, resilient, bejeweled, made somehow out of the air they dance on. I dream of flying like that.

In the sixth month, when the evenings are long and clear, the Angel Gabriel came down from God to a city in Galilee named Nazareth. Was there a silent flutter of pinions, a stirring in the grass as he furled those glorious wings and settled on the ground? Or did he hover, his feet resting on the air itself, as he spoke? There was a silence in that conception, a silence never heard before, and the wings of the Holy Spirit overshadowed the young woman. No grunting or panting, no sighs or sobs, no high exultant cry. Just air and angels. I dream of flying like that.

We dream of flying. We dreamed for centuries – of witches and demons and Icarus falling. Then we achieved the dream and it is dust and ashes. Aeroplanes are noisy, cramped, polluting – they scratch the surface of the blue ceiling and break up the silence of the night. They are – rightly, necessarily, tragically – unfree, hemmed in by noise and by noisy safety legislation – even hot air balloons and gliders simply do not touch the dream – the silent, free, powerful, soaring, flying dream.

I am hunting freedom and silence, like my barn owl hunts bank voles. I gave up on air. . it was just a dream.

And then – last Christmas I went to Liverpool to my son’s home. Boxing Day was a raw cold day with a harsh wind blowing in from the Irish Sea. Nonetheless, after the pleasurable excesses of the previous day, we both felt in need of some air and exercise. Suddenly he announced that he knew where we were going and I would like it. We drove north through the city and up the coast; there was very little traffic. Eventually we turned off the main road towards the beach. We had come to Crosby and “Another Place.” Here for nearly two miles of flat grey beach Anthony Gormley’s one hundred identical statues stand with their backs to the shore, gazing out towards the horizon. As the tide rises and falls, they are submerged to a greater or lesser extent. As the installation stretches over a quarter of mile out to sea, the furthest away ones may show only the tops of their heads, or they are drowned.

The beach was nearly empty. A few other walkers in the distance looked like extra statues. It was huge, monotone and silent. My son got out his kite. He had flown a kite as a child and he had told me that he was flying one again but I had not paid much attention. That day he was flying a small stunt kite. It took to the air like a bird; it seemed as though he could make it do anything – dance, soar, swoop, loop, hover. It was flight like the flying I have dreamed for so long. The kite was under his control and entirely free; silent in the bigger silence; like a bird but tamed to hand; graceful but leaning on the wind. “My life like a bird has escaped from the hand of the fowler.” We flew the kite for hours in that vast silent space, though our hands were numbed with cold and the statues did not turn to watch us; they stood still, staring silently out across the flat grey sea.

Silent air.


When the cosmologists and physicists look for life on other planets, they look first for water, or even for an atmosphere capable of producing water. No water – no life. In the beginning, first of all, there is water and silence; later there may be land and language. We are born in water; it is birthplace of all life and the birthplace of each human being. We frolic for nine month, in the silent, gravity-free pool of our mother’s wombs and swim ourselves towards dry air. They say it is neither silent nor dark in the womb, but from this side of birth it is.

Jacques Cousteau, the French marine explorer, was the first person ever to use an aqua-lung, and so the first breathing person ever to move freely in water. He describes the ecstatic freedom of that first dive:

To halt and hang attached to nothing, no lines or air-pipe to the surface, was a dream. I had often had visions of flying. [But] since that first aqua-lung flight, I have never had another dream of flying. . . Delivered from gravity and buoyancy, I flew around in space (1).

Water, like silence, is always seeking its own depths, labouring to sink down to the lowest point and rest there. People talk about “sinking” into the “depths” of silence. It is good metaphor. Silence absorbs me and the further in I go the more its strong pressure shapes and overwhelms me. In silence, as in deep waters, you are free from gravity. And, like deep water, you can drown in silence. People do. It is perilous.

I love to swim. I learned to swim so young that I have no memory of not being able to swim; and I do not “fear death by drowning”. On any summer walk, if an appropriate river, pool or loch presents itself, I am always happy to strip off and plunge in. I prefer fresh water to salt water, and like running fresh water best of all. Water supports my weight almost effortlessly, but it has its own silent strength. I hate public swimming baths.

Once, for a little while, I lived on an estuary, the kind with a good deal of tide and a great expanse of reed beds, which change colour and texture through the year and through the day, because when the tide is high the reeds are standing in water, but when it is low they are standing in mud. This daily silent rhythm of the tide affects everything, even the light itself, refracting the water through the reeds or flattening the tones out when the tide is low. Tides are as silent as the moon that causes them, and the sensations of that ebb and flow of the oceans shaped the rhythm of my days. I tried hour by hour to capture the silent moments of change. The tide table, the times and movements of the water, is not synchronised with the movement of the sun or the better-regulated rhythms of the twenty-four hour day. Tides are immensely complicated – there is a high (or low) tide approximately every twelve and a half clock-hours, although this varies considerably, and so does the height of the tide – in the case of my estuary the tide rose at different times of the year somewhere between 5.4m and 9.6m above its median. This means that high tide each day was at a different time and to a different level than the day before.
I had the use of a little rowing boat there and paddled about in the reed beds waiting for the kingfishers, the herons and the diverse ducks to appear or disappear. (I also waited for the otters, which are definitely there, but I waited in vain.) I watched for reflections too, both when the water was as still and clear as a mirror, and when it ruffled and swayed in the wind.

One night, when the tide was full, there was an evening so still that I could see reflections of the stars. Reflection in water is a magical thing – and the double meaning of the word doubles the magic; I reflect, silently, on the silent reflection of the stars in the water, and, in the sunshine, on the reflections of dragonflies coming up from the depths to meet the real dragonflies as they skim down on to the surface, which is a skin between the two worlds. I would stand on the little stone bridge for hours trying to learn to see fish, which can look like the reflection of trees but are not.

My friend Anne Wareham, whose garden, The Veddw in Monmouthshire, is one of my favourite gardens in the whole country, has a reflecting pool so perfectly placed that the whole garden is pulled into focus by looking down into the pool of silence rather than out at the garden itself. She dyes the water black, to steady and intensify the reflection.

This is art, but nature can do it too. In the high desolate places of South-West Scotland, where no one ever seems to go, between the Merrick range and the Rhinns of Kells, are a series of lochs. It is a long walk; and one afternoon I came down wearily to Loch Enoch, which has, unexpectedly, almost pointlessly, white beaches, which frame the dark water. And there were the hills and the whole sky, its blueness and its clouds, held in perfect silence in the depths of the water.

Silent water.


I did not naturally think of “fire” as a silent power. I had to work on this one.
Then one winter evening I was alone in church and there was a power cut. I do not know what had been happening, whether someone was ill or had just died or the local football team was facing relegation, but the votive candle stand was packed, alive with tiny flames. Fire in the silence and what would have been the darkness if they had not made their soft light. There, there was fire and silence and they spoke silently to each other. Each candle flame is a tiny silent fire, and they belong with ritual and worship. At the Easter Vigil, most ancient rite of Christians, a single candle flame is carried into the dark and silent church to celebrate the resurrection. There is silence and dark, and then there is light and music, and it is fire that mediates between the two. Fire is sacred.

And now, more secular, there are silent fireworks. Although I fear they were created to address petit bourgeois notions of good taste, there is a deep magic in silent fireworks. There is still the dark and the excitement and the return to childhood; there is still that peculiar sense of power and fear as you light the fuse; the tremulous anticipation as you step back from the dangerous beauty. And then, not breaking the silence of the night, there is golden rain and green fire and scarlet stars, and the shape of the landscape caught in sulphur light, both clear and ghostly. A brief silent glory, and then a long drift back into the dark.

(To be honest, silent fireworks are not completely silent; they start with a thump sound, and silent rockets go up with the usual powerful whoosh. But they are strange and glorious.)

Candles and fireworks are small fires but the stars, including our own sun, are huge. They burn and burn at unimaginably high temperatures for unaccountably long years. They blaze and blast and spark, and they do it all in silence. The explosions of their births and deaths go unheard throughout the whole cosmos. Sound waves are not like light waves or radio waves; sound waves are carried by the tiny vibration of one molecule striking another and bouncing back. Where there are no molecules there is no sound; sound cannot carry across a vacuum. So space itself is silent. Out there, beyond the atmospheric blanket, is an immeasurable, vast and everlasting silence, “the vast vacuity” through which Milton’s Satan fell. No wonder the devil loves noise.
The scale of it all is outrageous. There are about the same number of stars in the Milky Way (our own galaxy, and there are, they tell me, at least one hundred and twenty five million other galaxies) as there are cells in my body. Between each of them is an enormous distance - our nearest star, alpha proxima, is about five light years away from the sun. Between each star is silence. According to the Yale Bright Star Catalog, there are 9,110 stars with a magnitude of 6.5 or brighter, that is to say visible to the naked eye (assuming ideal conditions and good eye sight). Because space stretches out in every direction, you will never be able to see this many from any one point – only half of them could possibly be visible in each of the hemispheres. Nor will you see that many at any one time because the earth spins them into view throughout the night. Nonetheless, 4,500 possible stars sounds generous enough.

But wait. You only have to pick up a reasonably good pair of binoculars and you multiply the number of cosmic bonfires by ten. So now, if you have a very clear night and a high place to view from, you can see 45,000 stars.

Get a telescope and. . . the present “best estimate” of observable stars using available telescopes is seventy sextillion (seventy thousand million million million). That is more than all the grains of sand on all the beaches and in all the deserts on this planet, but it is not all the stars; it is only the number within the range of our technology. And between them all, there is silence.

Well of course I got a telescope. It is a small one, but it is more than enough. Sometimes I stand out there in the dark and my mind reels. There can be something chilling and hideous in that enormous silence. There are so many stars, and yet between each single one of them is those light years of silence. Of nothing. The stars sing and dance utterly alone, unconnected by any music, any gossip, any language. Sound cannot carry through space. It is all silence.

Standing there in the cold night, I try not to think about anti-matter. Scientists and mathematicians are currently saying there is not enough stuff, enough material objects, molecules or atoms, out there, to make it all work. There needs to be some dark material, invisible, immeasurable, but there. They do not know what it is or how to find it. I am appalled by this knowledge; the terror comes with the beauty and the joy. Perhaps anti-matter is all that concentrated silence. Silence so dense and heavy that it takes on materiality, and warps the silent travelling of the stars.

The expansive silence of space puts the tiny squeakings and pipings of our planet, which seem too often both inordinate and fatuous, back into proportion. Silence can look after itself. I don’t have to take that much responsibility. I just listen to the silence and rejoice.

Silent fire.

1. J.Y.Cousteau The Silent World (Hamish Hamilton, 1953) p.16